As contentious as U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency has become, its quest is visibly transformative. What is least likely to go down with his legacy, but is arguably most notable, is the way he has challenged public discourse. On Feb. 5, Obama addressed religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast by decrying those who distort religion to wage wars or violence.
“We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, profess to stand up for Islam, but in fact are betraying it,” he said.
What followed, however, reaffirmed the transformative feature of his presidency by stirring controversy over what it means to be an American.
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history … and lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Immediately after, Americans from all sides clustered against a comment they rendered un-American, un-patriotic and even anti-Christian. Further disapproval of the statement accused the president of a bad PR move, a false equivalence between ISIL now and the Crusades then and of a “self criticism [that] doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would,” wrote Ross Douthat of The New York Times. But most generally, people felt uncomfortable, betrayed. And people felt this way because their president was on the cusp of redefining “American-ness.”
But anyone historically familiar with the Crusades, the Inquisition or slavery is not only likely to reject the validity of this controversy, but is also likely to appreciate the humbling and reflective words from our Christian-American president. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to Douthat, the “implicit logic” in criticizing Obama for his forthrightness essentially asks that presidents continue to value honesty only so long as it offers “immediate benefit.” Admirably, Obama offers long-term benefits: in strategy, patriotism, discourse and overall literacy.
“American-ness” as we know it largely rests on redemption history, an interpretation that privileges the apology over the injury. This often clouds our worldly judgment as it inspires blindly patriotic sentiments of nostalgia, infallibility or deification that give a short view. A short view that eventually trails on to short hands, making public discourse more susceptible to generalizations that underestimate others while overestimating ourselves.
Yet, Obama redefines American-ness as honesty and triumph. With precision and historical literacy, Obama sobers the American people with hard-hitting truths, with a forthrightness our leadership has been starved of. Patriotism, in the Obama era, is then constructive criticism, a love for this land so honest that it recognizes its mistakes. How else can we curb their repetition?
It is time to dispose innuendos or fears and begin confronting what makes us all —Americans or not, Christians or not — human: our mistakes. Confronting these truths does not make anybody any less Christian, any less American or any less good. After all, as W.E.B. DuBois said, “nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”